Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 31, 2020

The Freedom Circus, by Sue Smethurst

There are many reasons why this memoir makes fascinating reading, but for Melbourne readers of a certain age, it will also bring back memories of ‘the Golden Age of children’s television’.  This memoir is the story of Mindla and her husband Kubush a.k.a. Michael Horowitz, known to those of us who watched The Tarax Show in the 1960s, as Sloppo the Clown.  The photo inserts in the book show him just as I remember him, but you can also see him at this photo gallery, fifth row down on the RHS. (See update below)

Written by Melbourne journalist Sue Smethurst, The Freedom Circus tells the story of her grandparents-in-law, and their astonishing escape from Poland during WW2.  The couple met and fell in love in Warsaw, and they married despite Mindla’s parents feeling dubious about the merits of a professional clown as a husband for their daughter.  Kubush, however, was no ordinary clown: he performed to sellout crowds in the world-famous Circus Staniewski.  It had a permanent home in Warsaw, but it also toured nationally.

And it so happened that Kubush was away on tour when Hitler invaded Poland.  Mindla could not persuade her parents and family to flee with her, but knowing what she did of the occupiers, she set off with her small son Gad on a perilous journey with a people smuggler, to join Kubush in the eastern city of Bialystok. Bialystok was, at that time before the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was broken by Hitler, under Soviet rule because the two powers had partitioned Poland between them.  But Kubush wasn’t there: the circus had moved on, and Kubush was on his way back to Warsaw to be with his beloved wife and child.  Mindla had no alternative but to journey on to her Uncle Aldo’s house in Sokolka where she was sent by the Soviets to work in a tannery.

Eventually, under pressure for Polish refugees to choose between becoming Soviet citizens or returning home, Mindla left the relative safety of Sokolka and set off on another perilous journey back to Warsaw.   She was not so lucky with the people smuggler this time, and, captured by the NKVD, she was imprisoned in the Bialystok prison under appalling conditions, the worst of which was that she was separated from little Gad.

Kubush, meanwhile, since the Circus Staniewski building had been bombed, had kept himself busy entertaining sick children in the Warsaw hospital.  However, in April 1940 Lala Staniewksa, the entrepreneur who managed the circus, wangled a temporary reprieve from conscription into labour gangs for her performers by reviving the circus to entertain their German occupiers.  This initiative probably saved the life of the clown Faivel Ditkowski who, as a dwarf, was at risk from the Nazi eugenics program.  Hitler’s demand that this Polish circus be replaced by a German one, however, coincided with the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, but Lala managed to get false papers for her staff and in a brilliant manoeuvre, arranged for their escape right under the noses of the Germans.  (You’ll have to read the book to find out how this was done!)

Under remarkable circumstances, the family reunited in Bialystok, and once again Kubush’s circus fame saved them.  Stalin loved circuses, and Mindla and Kubush were whisked off to Moscow where they lived in comfort and safety until 1941 when Hitler invaded the USSR and made rapid progress towards the Soviet capital.   Ironically, since Moscow had been good to them, it was the threat from the Germans which eventually led to the couple’s freedom.  They had realised all too soon that in the Soviet Union, they did not have choice: no one could leave the USSR of their own volition.  But instead of being stuck behind what came to be called The Iron Curtain, Mindla and Kubush — along with other Polish refugees and prisoners of war who’d been released to form a Polish army for the fight against the Axis — were evacuated deep into eastern Russia near the border of what is now Kazakhstan.

Their story continues: they survived the bitter conditions in the village of Totskoye, sleeping in tents and scavenging for scarce food; when the Soviets couldn’t supply the Polish soldiers and civilians they were transferred to the care of the British; and they then journeyed 3000km on foot through Afghanistan to British-occupied Tehran.  Google tells me that this is a journey of 596 hours on foot, but little Gad was only five…

It is not a journey for the faint-hearted or weak, but Persia, they are told, is well organised under the joint command of British and American forces.  Food is plentiful and from there, the British will find them a new home somewhere under the King’s rule.

Nothing but hope fuels every blistered footstep along dirt roads and mountainous tracks through Afghanistan and into Persia.

‘Soon we will see the sea,’ Mindla coaxes Gad whenever he is tired and doesn’t want to go on.  The promise of seeing the sea for the very first time buoys him.

She marvels at how the young boy is mature beyond his five years, but then, what else does he know?  His life was been a miserable roller-coaster of suffering and survival. (p.240)

In the Tehran camp, Kubush was soon brightening little faces with his clever tricks and comical routines, but before long they were on the move again. This time it was 2700 miles by sea to Kenya, and then to Camp Nyabyeya in Masindi, over the Kenyan border in Uganda. It turned out to be a bustling Polish village in the heart of Africa, where two thousand Poles were piecing together their broken lives.  That included reviving the circus!

Postwar, they were transferred to Rome for repatriation to destinations in the British Empire, and in 1949 the family which had grown to five, arrived at their final destination: like thousands of other displaced refugees, they made their home in Melbourne, where with hard work, they thrived.  One day The Tarax Show advertised auditions, and Sloppo the Clown arrived on the B&W TV screens of delighted children across Melbourne.

I was one of them, and I am so glad to have learned the story of this wonderful man and his indefatigable wife.

You can hear Sue Smethurst talk about her book at an online author event, hosted by the Latrobe Library, on November 17th.  It’s free, but you’ll need to book here.

Update, later the same day, I’ve just received permission from Sue Smethurst to use the photo of Kubush that’s in the book, and here he is is, as Sloppo the Clown with his Tarax Show stablemate Norm Brown a.ka. Boppo:

Photo credit: the Horowitz family, by permission of Sue Smethurst

Author: Sue Smethurst
Title: The Freedom Circus
Publisher: Ebury Press (Penguin Random House), 2020
ISBN: 9781760890308, pbk., 303 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from your favourite indie bookshop or Fishpond: The Freedom Circus: One family’s death-defying act to escape the Nazis and start a new life in Australia


Responses

  1. Wow! What an incredible story!

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    • Yes, who’d have thought being a clown was a kind of passport to safety!
      And that walk, through Afghanistan… I tried to work out how long it would take, between two and three months if you could do an eight hour day, but a little kid couldn’t keep that up. The book was written from the memories of Mindla when she was an old woman (plus other research) and she apparently minimised the hardships because she was well aware, in Melbourne, that her story was one of many, but it must have been a nightmare.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. No commercial television for the Holloways. In fact no TV at all until I was 15. “Tarax Show” brings to mind Happy Hammond but that’s it. I love the idea of escaping south from the USSR instead of west, probably not so romantic as I imagine it! In my twenties I had a workmate, a White Russian, whose family had come to Australia via years in China.

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    • In the course of reading this, I asked The Spouse if he remembered Princess Panda and Happy Hammond, and he was adamant that they were on The Tarax Show, and I was equally adamant that it must have been The Happy Show. It turns out that we were both right: HH and PP both started on The Tarax Show on Channel 9 and then went to Channel 7 when The Happy Show started a year or so later.
      My mother wasn’t strict about commercial TV, just how much of it we watched. We had to do our homework, piano practice, walk the dog and finish the jobs we always had (like cleaning the school shoes for the morning, who does that these days I wonder). And then we could watch TV but only till 5 minutes before 7pm when we had to wash our hands and get ready for dinner. No TV ever, afterwards. It was purgatory when all the girls at school were enthusing about The Man From UNCLE and we weren’t allowed to watch it.

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      • Strangely, The Man from Uncle is the one that sticks with me too. It was always in the air but I probably saw only 3 episodes all up, staying overnight at friend’s.

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        • Ah well, we survived without it!

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